Laura Dean Bennett
Most of us took our silly kids games for granted, but some of them have interesting histories.
For instance, Simon Says goes way back – to ancient Rome – and it was not Simon who started it.
It was Marcus Tulius Cicero, a famous Roman lawyer, writer, orator and high-ranking consul.
He was a powerful and influential statesman whose word, at one time, was practically law.
Cicero was one of the most respected wordsmiths of the ancient world – his wisdom was universally acclaimed.
He ranks right up there with Ben Franklin for quotable quotes: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need” being just one of many famous quotes.
In Latin, the phrase would have been “Cicero dicit fac hoc” meaning “Cicero says to do this.”
And if Cicero said to do it, you’d be wise to do it.
And thus, the game was born.
But how did Cicero’s name get changed to Simon?
In the 13th century, another well-known gentleman, this time of French-English blood, seized power and captured the imagination of the English populace.
A man powerful enough to imprison England’s King Henry III would be intimidating, thus it would behoove one to do what “Simon says,” or else.
And the name and the game, stuck.
If you’re a regular mibster who’s knuckled down with a taw and taken a shot for an aggie duck, then you already know quite a bit about mibs, or what the uninitiated might call “marbles.”
Marbles was really popular throughout the U.S., Britain and Europe in the early part of the 20th century, but World War II rationing, and the disruption of life in Europe during that terrible war, put the kibosh on marbles as a sport in many quarters.
It gained popularity again in the 1970s, and continues to be played today, and although marbles are still considered collectible, the game hasn’t been able to reclaim its place as the premier children’s game and adult pastime that it once was.
Marbles have been found in the ashes of Pompeii, Aztec ruins, in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, in excavations of ancient Greece and Rome and painted on 17th century Dutch wall tiles. In North America, engraved marbles have been found in ancient Native American earthen mounds.
The oldest marbles – round semi-precious stones buried with an Egyptian child – date to 3000 BC, and the British Museum has marbles from Crete which date to 2000 -1700 BC.
Obviously, marbles is an ancient and international game.
Mass production began in 1884, when Sam Dyke, of Akron, Ohio, along with about 350 employees, started producing a million clay marbles a day.
He was soon followed by more Akron entrepreneurs doing much the same, making Akron the American marble capital of the late 1800s.
In 1915, mass production of glass marbles began, thanks to a machine invented by Akron’s M.F. Christensen.
His system has remained essentially unchanged to this day.
There are lots of ways to play marbles – every schoolyard has its own variants and every club has its own games with their particular rules.
For most of its history jacks was called knucklebones.
Jacks are probably at least as old as humanity itself, when the jacks and ball would have been tiny sheep bones or rocks.
Objects used to play the game have been found in caves in Kiev, Ukraine, and depictions of the game being played have been found on ancient Greek pottery, some dating to 350 BC.
Sophocles credited the invention of knucklebones to a mythical figure named Palamedes, who taught it to the Greek soldiers during the Trojan War.
Blind Man’s Bluff
This is a game thought to have been played by many cultures over the centuries.
In blind man’s buff, one player is blindfolded and then disoriented by being spun around several times.
The other players, who are not blindfolded, amuse themselves by calling out to the “blind man” and dodging away from him. Its origin may be too universal to ascribe to any one group of people, but we do know that it was especially popular in Tudor England, even among adults.
The game was considered genteel enough for noble ladies and gentlemen and it was said to be a favorite in the court of Henry VIII.
Ring Around the Rosie
This game is played in a circle and can accommodate many players.
One child stands in the center and the others form a ring, hold hands, skip around the child in the center, singing this song:
Ring around the rosie,
Pockets full of posies;
We all fall down.
It’s hard to believe, but this lively, innocent-sounding song has a terrible origin.
It evolved from the suffering in Europe caused by the Black Death.
From the 1300s to the 16th century, there were several “plagues,” the word plague being used to describe several epidemic illnesses.
It may have been during the great London Plague of 1665 that this nursery rhyme came into being.
Back in those days, rhymes and songs were a way for common folk to tell stories that could be carried to succeeding generations and this song may be one of those.
Ring around the rosie.
This referred to the rash of round, reddish marks that would appear on the skin – one of the first signs a person had the plague.
A pocket full of posies
In the Middle Ages it was thought that bad humors – bad smells – could cause the plague. That, coupled with the stench of the sick and dying, led people to carry bouquets of flowers as a way to fend off disease – and as a barrier for the nose.
During the plague years, many bodies were cremated; or perhaps this may also refer to the common graveside prayer: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”
We all fall down
Death, during the plague years, was an everyday occurrence in many communities.
Despite its plague history, who hasn’t enjoyed a round or two of Ring around the Rosie?
Hopscotch has been played on playgrounds and sidewalks around the world.
It’s a simple game that can be played solo or in a group, and we’ve all hopped into a game – or at least watched.
A stone is thrown into one of the numbered spaces laid out on a grid. The child picks up the stone while hopping through the squares.
Hopscotch is just physical enough to help youngsters improve motor skills and balance.
It is believed that the game of Hopscotch – at least the game as it was originally played in England – is at least 500 years old.
There are many theories as to how the game first came about.
Some historians tell us that hopscotch began in Roman-ruled England.
The courses were 100 feet long and were used in training Roman soldiers to build agility while wearing full armor.
The “scotch” in hopscotch attached itself later.
It’s a variation of “scratch,” referring to players hopping over a grid of scratches made on the ground.
The British are said to have taken inspiration from those training courses and made a game of it.
The first recorded English reference to the game dates back to the 17th century when it was called “Scotch-hop” or “Scotch-Hoppers.”
In the 1677 edition of Poor Robin’s Almanack, the game, almost identical to the Hopscotch we know today, was referred to as ‘Scotch-hoppers.”
Duck, Duck, Goose
To play Duck, Duck, Goose, players sit on the ground in a circle.
One player, who could be called the runner, walks around the outside of the circle, tapping each participant’s head while saying the word “duck.”
At some point, the runner says “goose” as he or she taps a target player, and then the goose must chase the runner around the circle until the runner reaches the goose’s former seat and quickly slips into it.
This game was introduced by Swedish immigrants who came to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
There’s another version of “Duck, Duck, Goose that’s only played in Minnesota.
It’s called the “gray duck” way of playing the game and it also came from Sweden.
But why the “duck” and the “goose”?
Well, for one thing, a goose really is fairly likely to chase you if you bonk it on the head.
Heck, some of them will chase you just for looking at them.
Red Rover, Red Rover
This game is played between two imaginary lines with enough room for a player to run in between and crash through the opposing line.
You can vary the distance between lines depending on how much steam you want people to be able to build up as they run.
Each team lines up holding hands along one of these imaginary lines and the game starts when the first team yells, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send [insert someone’s name] right over!”
The person whose name is called has to run and break through the opposing team’s line.
If they can’t break through, then the player must stay and be a part of the opposing team.
However, if the player makes it, then they select either of the two broken links – the players through which they broke the line – and take them to join their team.
Then, it’s the other team’s turn to call over a player.
When there is one player left on a team, this player also must try and break through the opposing team’s line. If they fail, the opposing team wins. If they succeed, they pick up another player and the game continues.
Apparently, Red Rover has been banned from some school playgrounds as being too violent, and, well, it can get a little aggressive, I guess.
The true origin of the game Red Rover has never been historically documented, but it’s probably a centuries-old game, maybe played by adults as well as children.
There are records of it being played centuries ago in Britain where Viking raids were common. The Norwegian raiders were the scourge of the British Isles up through the 11th century.
Rover is a Norwegian term for robber or pirate and if the game originated in Britain, the call to come and break the line may have been a saucy taunt directed at imaginary Viking invaders.
Another name for the game may have been Octopus Tag or British Bulldogs, as these names were used when the game spread from the United Kingdom to Australia and other parts of the British Empire.
The game is known as Forcing the City Gates in China.
Another, perhaps less likely theory, has Red Rover being invented in the United States in the 19th century as Red Rover was the name of an 1828 steamboat plying the Hatchie River in northern Mississippi and southwestern Tennessee.
Another less likely theory has the game originating in America, a takeoff on a book by James Fenimore Cooper, titled Red Rover.
Whatever the origin of Red Rover, and by whatever name, as long as there are children, it will still find a welcome in yards and on playgrounds.